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The Paradox of Mindfulness and Futures Thinking

Foresight requires imagination about what might happen in the future. Mindfulness requires focusing on the present. Incompatible, right?


Not only are they compatible, but in fact mindfulness is increasingly becoming a requirement for futures thinking. That’s because mindfulness helps us distinguish between the present and the noise; and between constructive thinking about the future and worry.


Noisy present, noisy future


The present is very noisy. The blurring of “work” and “life,” being always on, the endless demands from your mobile phone for attention make it a challenge to focus on anything. Marketers are using neuroscience and behavioural psychology to drag you back to your smartphones and keep you there as part of what is now known as the Attention Economy. It is now difficult to spend a moment to ourselves – whether we are trying to work or relax –without considering what might be happening on our phones.


The future is also noisy. It is filled with uncertainty and appears to be becoming increasingly complex. It is also coming at us much more quickly than before, and we experience change less as a series of steps and more as a turbulent river. As the future hits us, it creates yet more noise.


Mindfulness = attention -> awareness


How can mindfulness help? If we focus on the present, doesn’t it just amplify the noise? Let’s look again at the essential core of mindfulness, and I offer a layman’s definition: Strengthening our ability to pay attention, thereby increasing awareness. If we unpack this a little, strengthening our ability to pay attention means more deftly identifying what we want to focus on. Attention is really all we’ve got – your life is your experience of it, and you can only experience what you pay attention to. When you want to focus on something, you can.


But while mindfulness practice is indeed based on strengthening attention to the present experience, that is not an end in itself. In fact, the point is more to recognise that your thoughts are separate from you, and you can more easily be aware of what you’re thinking, and what you want to do with those thoughts.


Mindful vs mindless thinking


And that’s the real value. Because if you’re mindlessly replaying an unpleasant driving experience from yesterday when somebody cut you off, or worrying about whether you’ll be able to pull of next week’s presentation, it’s unlikely to be productive thinking. This is the awareness side of the equation. But if you replay a past event mindfully (ie. learn from it), or consider a future event mindfully (ie. plan for it), then great.


By choosing what you pay attention to, you raise your awareness not just of your current experience without the noise, but also your options. And considering options is what you need to do when you consider the future, and make better decisions.


Hence, to properly consider the future, which is not usually as complicated as we fear, we first need to be able to calm our minds. Otherwise, you’ll just stay lost in the distractions of the noisy present.


*Image: 3d png from pngtree.com: https://pngtree.com/so/3d

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